Foreign and local companies try different strategies to keep growing
China’s retail market is growing exponentially. Accounting for roughly 14 percent of the economy, how retailing progresses is gravely important to the entire economy, and to China’s growth prospects. It is equally important to China’s trading partners.
No economy can reach fully-developed status, including a robust consumption-based economy, without a fully-developed, modern retail and distribution system. The innovation and productivity of the retailing sector affect the manufacturing, agriculture and services sectors more powerfully than does any other industry, save perhaps banking.
Four important trends have dominated Chinese retailing over the past dozen years. The first is a massive and highly successful influx of sophisticated foreign retailers creating extreme competition. By 2005, more than 35 of the world’s top 50 were in China. Some, such as Ikea, are moving cautiously. But most are racing. Carrefour forecasts 25 new hypermarkets annually and Tesco 10 a year for the foreseeable future. Wal-Mart’s billion-dollar investment in Trust-Mart (35 percent stake) and purchase into Yihaodian – one of China’s leading e-commerce websites – demonstrates its intentions.
Management consultant A.T. Kearney predicts double-digit retail growth for the foreseeable future. Domestic players still dominate. Gome Electrical, for instance, China’s leader in household appliances expanded stores by 20 percent, increasingly in smaller cities. Major international retailers are also expanding rapidly, aiming at smaller cities. Metro Group has plans for 100 total outlets by 2015. With 900 million Chinese yet to move into the ranks of the middle class, China will be a magnet for global retail giants for years to come.
The second trend is the substantial competition-induced efficiency gains. Successful technology applications to reduce costs and improve performance are critical where competition leaves paper-thin margins. Some are simple: new lighting, heating and ventilation technologies to reduce energy costs. Others are more fundamental: regional distribution hubs, computer-based stocking, and cold chains critical to modern food retailing. Food and product safety regulations, and middle-class preferences, require more modern distribution technology. It also makes higher-end Chinese goods more attractive in US and Europe when they more closely meet the destination standards.
Recent studies find that international retailers in China focus primarily on brand image. Chinese firms focus more intently on information and communication technology capability. More than just online sales, this means focusing on computer-based business process efficiencies.Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management finds that every dollar of real estate, plant or ordinary equipment a company owns in the US, on average returns one more dollar of market value. Better computer-enabled business or organizational practices, however, add about $10, a total of $2 trillion in the US. ICT-based business process improvement is serious business.
As firms push to reach the large cities of the western interior – what some call the last great industrial adventure – highly efficient logistics structures and processes are critical. These form the backbone of inventory management. World-class management practices in the large retail sector will have profound value-added effects for China; and inevitable productivity spillover into other sectors.
Increasingly sophisticated local retailers make China a tough market for foreign companies. China Resource Vanguard in Shenzhen and Yonghui in Fujian province, for instance, use local knowledge and savvy management teams to grow rapidly despite the entry of Wal-Mart and Carrefour. Wahaha and Tingyi have grabbed market space from Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Detergent producers Nice Group and Guangzhou Liby Enterprise Group have captured about 35 percent of the detergent market, and Haier, the No 4 refrigerator producer in the world, is dominating its market.
The fruits of this competition include aggressive pricing and customer service, more unconditional refunds, nicer shopping environments, more attention to quality and locality preferences of consumers, and product/service flexibility that have improved the overall consumer experience.
The third is the rise of a coherent regulatory structure. Over the last several years, important regulations on the retail sector have been issued, including new labor laws, strict food safety and quality standards, and environmental protection rules. Since the Sanlu milk powder scandal in 2008, central and local governments have begun to pay much more attention to food safety and quality control.
In response, firms have expanded quality control efforts over their own products and those in their supply chains. Retailers increasingly require suppliers to pass formal certification of food safety and quality improvement systems (such as QS and ISO 9001). Standardized international marketing strategies on quality, value and service have helped Chinese retailers build a stronger brand image. Consumers, who often pay extra for foreign brands to get the quality and safety assurance, can increasingly find that comfort with Chinese brands. These brands will become more attractive to foreign markets as well.
Partly as result of new labor laws and a stronger regulatory environment, wage increases of up to 40 percent, more stringent compliance requirements (particularly in the areas of food security and sustainable development), and higher taxes have led to significantly higher costs. These costs are part of a modern, world-class retail sector.
The fourth is the shift to online retailing, or e-commerce. China is expected to have 700 million Internet users by 2015 – as many as in the US, India, Japan, Russia, and Indonesia combined. Last year, Chinese consumers spent 1.9 billion hours online. Seniors and rural residents are new to the Internet but are rapidly becoming active cyber-citizens.
What are they doing? Increasingly it’s shopping. Shopping is the fourth-most-popular online activity in China, and the fastest growing – 36 percent of Chinese Internet users shop, and this is expected to soon reach 50 percent. The Boston Consulting Group reports that China has 193 million online shoppers – more than the US, and five times that of the UK. By 2015, China’s e-commerce sales should match the US, and could capture 8 percent of total Chinese retail sales.
Simply put, companies cannot have a major presence in China without being online, not just to sell, but also to engage with customers where they spend so much of their time. If they are not buying, they are researching. A quarter of consumers research online before purchasing. Another 29 percent research and buy online.
Taobao’s C2C site, for example, offers more than 500 million products by more than 5 million merchants, with 50,000 sales per minute. Unlike eBay, most products sold online in China are new. Major retailers are moving online, such as Wal-Mart via Yihaodian, Gome through Coo8.com.
Chinese companies appear to be more aggressive than their foreign rivals in embracing Internet channels. As foreign firms focus on brand loyalty, surveys suggest Chinese firms see ICT as the primary tool to win consumers, especially the important 20-40 year olds. More than 40 percent of foreign competitors had no plans to focus on online sales while 93 percent of Chinese firms already are, or soon plan to be, online.